Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hard To Be A God

Would you read a Culture novel set in Westeros? We have something like that in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Hard to be a God, now available in a new translation from the Chicago Review Press by Olena Bormashenko. She did the recent edition of Roadside Picnic, as well, so if you had a good experience with that book you should really try this one. First published in the Khruschev era in 1964, this novel was much more popular with Russian SF readers than Roadside Picnic. That makes sense to me, as a friend who grew up in the USSR once described conspiracy as the best hermaneutic lens for interpreting events in Russian politics. There's a lot of conspiracy going on in this novel.

Hard to be a God is considered one of the Strugatskys' more optimistic novels, set in the post-scarcity, communist future of the Noon Universe.*  There are cornucopia machines, even though they are not called that. The banter between the protagonist and his friends will be very familiar to the fans of the non-Romantic and more picaresque figures in modern fantasy, such as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The Strugatsky brothers set out to write a lighthearted urban adventure inspired by the Three Musketeers. However the novel took a radically different turn due to Russian politics in the early 1960s. The novel became a cautionary tale disguised as an adventure.

The time the novel was written was less than a decade after Khruschev's Secret Speech of 1956, in which he officially disclosed Stalin's crimes to party leaders. It was also just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which could have ended in a nuclear war if not for the moral probity of the Russian submariner who refused launch orders (but the world only learned of that much, much later).

Within Russia, the apparent cultural openness of the Khruschev period was being challenged by party operatives in the cultural sphere who used Khruschev's personal expression of distaste for avant garde art as the excuse to begin a crackdown on various types of experimental art and literature. The Strugatskys remembered the past decades; Hard to be a God was their response.

We find our hero, the ne'er do well Don Rumata (one of a number of Earth observers who are on the planet in disguise) living the life of a dissolute noble swordsman in the kingdom of Arkanar. The kingdom has fallen on bloody, brutal times, with a useless young king and his menacing advisor, Don Reba (think Beria, with the "i" removed for purposes of deniability). Reba has built up a private militia - the grayshirts - who are busy arresting and executing any intellectuals they can get their hands on.

There are concerns among the Earth observers that Arkanar's development has deviated from the normal course that "base theory" (i.e., "Dialectical and Historical Materialism") outlines for the development of societies from the medieval to industrial stage. Instead, some kind of quasi-fascist social movement is taking over the kingdom of Arkanar. Society has deviated from its natural course of development, and the Earth observers are uncertain how or why this has happened.

I won't give away the plot, but I will say that for a purportedly optimistic novel, its tone is unremittingly grim - much, much worse than Roadside Picnic. Sure, their are humorous moments, but all of them are set against a dark background. This is probably the strongest connection to the work of Iain M. Banks, for unlike the agents of the Culture, the observers of Noon Universe Earth are not allowed to intervene in the social development and political affairs of the kingdom.

Of course, some Earth observers have broken the rules and intervened anyway. And our hero plays close to the edge of the Noon Universe's "Prime Directive" by rescuing and relocating intellectuals, scholars, and scientists who are being persecuted by the regime.

Life is very cheap under the regime of Don Reba. Things aren't much different in our world. I was reading the novel during the midst of Israel's brutal re-re-re-invasion of Gaza, and at the height of the U.S.-based hysteria over and persecution of Central American children at the border. Seeing the U.S.'s latest intervention to re-fix the mess it created in Iraq, is a good reminder that it is Hard to be a God - very hard in deed. Best to think about it first. 

It goes without saying that the brutality of Don Reba, and of later social actors in the novel such as the Holy Order, are very reminiscent of the behavior of the powerful in A Game of Thrones. Perhaps it's no accident that Arkanar has a Gray Joy Inn, and a less-than-beloved king who dies at the hands of a poison wielding adviser.

 *Be forewarned that some of the information in the wiki article on the Noon Universe is inaccurate. For example, the Progressors are explicitly forbidden to interfere in the primitive alien cultures they observe. That is Earth's policy. One wonders whether Roddenberry had read (or heard of) the Strugatskys' novel before Star Trek debuted in 1966.

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